Bob Rogers' Legends panel 2012: Disney leaders look back on Epcot's 30th anniversary

November 14, 2012, 8:36 PM · ORLANDO - Every year at the IAAPA Attractions Expo, Bob Rogers (a friend and registered member of Theme Park Insider) gathers several Disney Legends for a wide-ranging talk about the history of the Walt Disney theme parks. This year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Epcot, Bob shook up the usual routine and instead invited five current and former Disney Imagineers to talk about the development of the park.

2012 IAAPA Legends panel

I've selected some of my favorite highlights from this year's 90-minute talk. I never worked in Epcot, but I'm the husband of a former Epcot cast member, so I love hearing from some of the people who made this park happen. And I found it both refreshing and reassuring that some of Disney's current creative leaders also acknowledge room for improvement in this beloved park. Now, to get the suits in Burbank to open the checkbooks!

On design philosophy

Tony Baxter, Sr. Vice President, Creative, Walt Disney Company:
"To me, Epcot is the real world made magical, the Magic Kingdom is the magical world made real, the studio tour is how you make the magic. And if you think about that, you can take any theme and make it work anywhere. Let's take Indiana Jones. If it were in the Magic Kingdom, it's the ride we have at Disneyland, where you actually go into his world, and that magical world becomes real. If it's at the studio tour, it's how did they do the stunts in the Indiana Jones world. If we were to put it at Epcot, like now it is in the Discovery Center in California with National Geographic, [it's] showing you Indiana Jones as an archeologist and getting kids interested in archeology."

Marty Sklar, Retired, Walt Disney Imagineering:
"A lot of times we've had marketing people talk about 'why don't we talk about the parks are an escape, and escape from the real world,' and [Disney Legend] John [Hench] used to get upset about that. He said 'the parks are not about escapism. they're about reassurance' - that things can be done right, that you can talk to a stranger in a public place, that a public place can be clean, that you can come out of these experiences, and saying wow, I feel so good, I feel optimistic about the future, optimistic about the world."

"One of the rules I think is really important when you design things is to think about the 10th ride through the experience and design for that 10th ride. Don't design it for the first one - that's easy. If you get a response of 'been there, done that, I don't need to do it again' we're all out of business. You've got to want to go ion t at least 10, 20, 30 times, and get as much value out of it on that last ride as the first one. A lot of that comes out of making it emotional for people."

The importance of music in theme park storytelling

"Some of the best storytelling Disney has done, in motion picture and in our shows, has been in songs. X Atencio wrote 'Yo Ho, A Pirate's Like for Me' and then he wrote 'Grim, Grinning Ghosts' for the Haunted Mansion, and we stopped doing songs. Not one more song in a Disney park show. I called Bob and Dick Sherman right away and said you get your butts in here and we're going to show you what we're doing and we want you to start writing songs. They did 'One Little Spark' and then they did 'Making Memories,' and then we found a guy who was singing in a bar in Newport Beach, California. His name was Bob Moline and he wrote 'Listen to the Land' and with Randy [Bright] he wrote 'Golden Dreams' for American Adventure. Pretty soon, almost every pavilion had a song that you could associate with. It became a key part of our storytelling - you could just take that song and play it and you knew what that show was about and you knew what that story was."

"When you hear these songs, you think right away of a Disney park, of a Disney attraction, and if the lyrics are done well, like in the case of 'one little spark explains imagination'… all of things take you back to where you were. They're free souvenirs - once they get implanted, they're there forever. There's a park, Efteling, over in Europe, I can pretty much hum three songs over from Efteling, so it's not just a Disney thing, it's something others have learned, too."

On The American Adventure

Rick Rothschild, now Founder and COO, FAR OUT! Creative Direction:
"I remember walking out with a group that had seen [American Adventure] and a couple were debating who were the live actors and who weren't and I realized that I guess we'd done a pretty good job."

"There [originally] was a three-head show once, with Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and Will Rogers. As that whole process of evolving the story took place, the notion that the 20th Century was so close to us, there was so many different ways that we could tell history, that the idea of only having one spokesperson… Will Rogers, is probably not the best way to reflect the principle narrative all the way through the 20th century. We actually let the 20th Century begin to tell its own story, to allow the narrative come from a variety of different voices that are each speaking to their point in history. You can't sometimes summarize in one, sometimes you have to let the many take the storytelling."

What's wrong today, and needs to be fixed?

"I don't think the Imagination pavilion works anymore. I'm going to be forthright about that. I think the difference we had between Figment and Dreamfinder, representing knowledge and the unbridled enthusiasm of a child, was very clear to people. It spoke and it resonated. They've tried to bring Figment back, bit it's like having a comedian play against a comedian, with Nigel Channing. It's like Hardy and Hardy instead of Laurel and Hardy. You've got to have a good play between the characters, and I think people go through there and they don't understand what it's about. All of us go through this imagination process, and I thought that was an extraordinary topic to handle and put out there, and it kind of skirts the issue of what it is today."

And this exchange:

"Rick, how many times have you changed the Golden Dreams ending?"

"Eric and I were just talking about going at it again. It was sort of understood that every 10 years there's enough history goes on that we can begin to look back and we should reconsider."

Eric Jacobson, Creative Leader EPCOT, Walt Disney Imagineering :
"Rick's not announcing anything." (Laughter)

"My point being that we've gone 12 years since we did the last one."

"And having just seen the show yesterday, the next last image in Golden Dreams is a man by the name of Lance Armstrong."


On Epcot's legacy

Monty Lunde, President, Technifex:
"The buildup to do Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland was about 3,000 people. But then they opened and basically said to many of us 'have a nice life' and we were let go. There was no industry for those of us to go to, and many of us had a tough time finding work, so many of us just said 'let's try to do this on our own.' That was a first wave of entrepreneurs who started exporting what we learned at Disney to Universal, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros. and everyone else who decided it would be a great idea to start a theme park. That essentially spawned this entire industry."

Replies (7)

November 14, 2012 at 9:07 PM · Thank you for sharing some of their thoughts. Really fascinating stuff to read. I hope some of the principles they discussed continue to be implemented in the parks today. The importance of music to theme park attractions seems to have been lost in recent years. So when something like "Compass of Your Heart" from Sindbad's Storybook Voyage I am very encouraged that the art of theme park music is not dead yet. Hopefully we'll see more original music (not just music from movies or television) in the parks in the coming years.
November 14, 2012 at 9:25 PM · Agreed with Tim; original theme park music needs to come back. Great article Robert!

Also, you have a typo under the American Adventure heading ;^) (hint: scene)

November 14, 2012 at 9:36 PM · Fixed. Thanks.
November 15, 2012 at 4:52 AM · "[Disney Legend] John [Hench] used to get upset about that. He said 'the parks are not about escapism. they're about reassurance' - that things can be done right, that you can talk to a stranger in a public place, that a public place can be clean,"

Wait, so if i live in a place where actual public places are clean and strangers are no people that make me feal some kind of class anxiety or whatever, theres no need for theme parks?
Maybe thats why there are so few in Europe. But then, there are parks in Japan too, and they have the cleanest and safest big cities in the world.

November 15, 2012 at 5:49 AM · Great article and I share the hopes of Tim for more original music/songs. Take the latest that Disney brought us, the little mermaid ride. It's the movie in 3 minutes but it doesn't add anything. Disney should be about telling stories and need to expend those stories in the theme parks. Same with the new projection show. Paris has a story version but Orlando get's a best off collection and no story.
I also hope they fix Epcot. Maybe adding a scene at the American dream show with Walt, fixing the Imagination pavilion, rip Ellen's energy crisis and make something new and open the pavilion next to it, it was fun!
November 15, 2012 at 8:36 AM · That's a really interesting point about the Imagination ride. I think the new version is okay on its own, but it's very sad when compared to the original. They've wasted an opportunity with that space.

I expect that after the Magic Kingdom work is done, they're going to have to focus on some issues in EPCOT. They've updated Test Track, so now they need to figure out what to do with Imagination and Energy. Those could be upgraded into something great without spending crazy money since the infrastructure is already there.

November 15, 2012 at 9:13 AM · They can over think a ride or a concept. "Figment and Dreamfinder" are not the most creative idea for characters in an attraction. It is just weird (hey you, the guest, you have no imagination or dreams so we brought some plain vanilla version to you, yawn). I never felt a connection. And they ruined the Imagination pavilion with their changes. They turned an entertaining attraction into a educational attraction for 3 year olds.

The EPCOT description is strange. Theme parks are supposed to be clean. What was he thinking? No one speaks with strangers. Wanna dime? Disney charges a bundle for their version of society. I will never consider it as a model for real community.

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